A surprise primary for Rep. Maloney becomes bitter battle for N.Y district

NEW YORK — Rep. Carolyn Maloney hasn’t had to debate a primary opponent in 18 years in Congress, but by the time the New York Democrat delivered her opening statement in a radio matchup on Tuesday, she had already been called a liar.

It was Reshma Saujani, a 34-year-old finance attorney and Democratic activist, who made that charge — and more. Saujani has denounced the incumbent as a “mediocre” congresswoman, accused her of ethical lapses and criticized her leadership on key issues, including reform of the financial industry, the backbone of New York’s economy.

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“Congresswoman Maloney has failed New Yorkers. She has failed to lead,” Saujani said in the campaign’s lone debate, held a week before the Sept. 14 primary.

For Maloney, who represents the “Silk Stocking” district covering Manhattan’s East Side and part of Queens, the serious primary challenge is a surprise in itself. Since ousting Republican Rep. Bill Green in 1992 and fending off a GOP challenge two years later, she has won reelection easily. She’s a liberal Democrat in a liberal district, and the scandals that have brought down several New York Democrats in recent years haven’t touched her. In 2009, Maloney prepared a campaign to challenge appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in a Democratic primary before backing out.

While the sagging economy has threatened incumbents across the country, Saujani’s campaign — still a long shot — has perplexed some political insiders in New York.

“Her campaign is at the right time and the wrong place,” said Michael Gianaris, a Queens state assemblyman and a Maloney supporter. “Carolyn Maloney is not part of the problem.”

Gianaris said Maloney was “omnipresent” in her district and that Saujani’s critique “rings hollow.”

Support from Wall Street and tech-industry backers has allowed Saujani to spend more than $1 million on the race, where she touts her youth — she’d be the youngest woman in Congress — and her experience on the presidential campaigns of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and former Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.). The daughter of Indian immigrants who escaped oppression in Uganda, Saujani has also relied on a resume that includes degrees from Harvard and Yale, as well as stints at a white-shoe Manhattan law firm and the Fortress Investment Group.

Yet Saujani’s Wall Street ties have been as much a headache as an advantage — in remarks at an early campaign event, she suggested Maloney had not stood up for the financial industry, and said she wanted to “extend a hand rather than a fist” to Wall Street. Since then, Saujani has been saddled with what she says is an inaccurate perception that she is the candidate of Wall Street.

When Saujani criticized Maloney of painting an overly rosy picture of the economic recovery, Maloney retorted that her rival “sounds like a Republican in Congress.”

“It’s sad, peddling this myth that I’m a creature of Wall Street,” Saujani said in an interview.

Saujani is now trying to walk a delicate line, defending her many would-be constituents who work on Wall Street while insisting that the recently enacted financial regulatory overhaul “did not go far enough.”

“I have never said I was against reform. I am a reformer,” she said.

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During the hour-long debate, Saujani characterized Maloney as “a member of Congress emeritus” and said she had “a lack of depth and understanding” about the economy. She accused Maloney of lying about her involvement in scheduling a fundraiser with Wall Street executives at the same time she was on the conference committee for financial reform legislation. She also criticized Maloney for supporting embattled Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), whom Saujani has called on to resign, and for not speaking out aggressively in favor of the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero.

Maloney touted her accomplishments and steered clear of Saujani to the point that she never even mentioned her opponent’s name. She cited last year’s credit card reform legislation as a top achievement and said she had directed hundreds of millions of dollars to the district for projects like the Second Avenue subway in Manhattan.

“I have never backed down from a fight because helping people is my passion,” Maloney said. Defending her record on ethics, she quoted the late congresswoman and civil rights leader Shirley Chisholm: “I’m unbought and unbossed. I am nobody’s congressperson but yours.” Maloney said the fundraising event Saujani mentioned was scheduled by her campaign staff before she was appointed to the conference committee.

Seated next to each other in a small studio, the two candidates barely interacted. As Saujani gave her closing statement, Maloney was packing up her purse. With reporters following her into an elevator, the congresswoman smiled and answered questions with a pat response: “It was a great debate.”

Asked about Saujani’s attacks, Maloney demurred. “I believe in free speech and she’s entitled to say whatever she wants,” she said.

While Saujani’s biography and fundraising success have won her attention and a foothold in the race, she has been criticized by Maloney supporters for running a relentlessly negative campaign that could jeopardize an otherwise promising political career.

“A lot of elected officials are just wondering what’s going on with her,” said George Arzt, a veteran New York political consultant who is advising Maloney. He said the tone of Saujani’s campaign has been “downright nasty.”

Out in the district, Saujani’s tone softens. She spent Labor Day walking through a street fair in an immigrant community in Queens, introducing herself to residents with leaflets and a smile. “She’s been in office 20 years. We need some new blood,” Saujani told one potential voter, the closest she came to criticizing Maloney.

Though she has 14 full-time field organizers on staff, she walked the streets with just a pair of aides. Her campaign signs were posted on store fronts throughout the neighborhood, but she went largely unrecognized, as residents took a few seconds to realize the face on the leaflets belonged to the woman distributing them.

The only polls that have been made public on the race were conducted in the spring and showed Saujani only in the single digits, but she dismissed them as meaningless, saying she had yet to send out a single piece of mail at the time.

Rather than spend her money on television ads, Saujani — who has since been endorsed by the New York Daily News and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s girlfriend, former state banking superintendent Diana Taylor — has poured her cash into field operations and a sophisticated voter targeting system devised by Ken Strasma, who served as national targeting director for the Obama presidential campaign.

Political veterans in New York give Saujani a slim chance in the primary, predicting privately that she’ll win about 30 percent of the vote. Some have suggested she should have run for a lower office in her first campaign instead for Congress.

Saujani said she has no other office in mind. If she loses, she told The Hill: “I am running for the seat the next day.” After a second, she added: “But I don’t plan on losing.”

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